Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To Be Stuck Inside A Mobile

Park: Appomattox Court House NHP
Photographer: Gurney, Hubert A.
Description: Clover Hill Tavern (visitor center and park office). Slave Quarters -- right used as rest room. Tavern Guesthouse at left now restored.
Credit: National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

At the end of the Civil War there was an actual "moment", when Robert E. Lee sat down with General Grant in a house at Appomattox, Virginia, and they signed some papers.  The initial understanding of the concept of the "End of the Civil War" is that "it" occurred in that moment in Virginia.  The fact that there are other significant moments, such as the surrender of Johnson to Sherman at Bennett Farm near Durham, NC, and for that matter, the murder of Lincoln, are typically viewed as still somehow "after the fact."  The war was over when Lincoln was assassinated is viewed as true, not false in a world where degrees of truth are not considered.  However, I went to Appomattox a few years ago (and I recommend such a visit to all).  It's an eerie sort of place.  Because Appomattox is actually not there.  The town moved a few miles down the road, ostensibly to where the railroad station was located.  But that's only an alibi.  The house where the surrender took place was actually dismantled and moved to the Smithsonian in DC, where it resided in storage for decades.  The Courthouse was abandoned, and many records burned in a fire (if I recall the placard correctly).  In short, the perceived disgrace of surrender at Appomattox was culturally denied and erased by the local citizens of Virginia.  And although much later, in the 20th Century, a National Monument was established on the spot, and the old farm house was returned and rebuilt, and the place was spruced up, with a concrete parking lot and no doubt a budget for grounds keepers, I wonder if many of the citizens of Appomattox still view the whole thing as a disgrace.  Do the locals, I wonder, go up to visit the Monument?

The history of Appomattox subsequent to the surrender of Lee speaks to something in the culture, that's all I'm suggesting.  I'm not sure exactly what.  It must be balanced against other features of Virginia history, including the story of the 29th Division, and the closing of public schools in some Virginia Counties during the period of reaction to Brown V.  It raises questions about whether any big historical "thing" is really an event of the moment, and whether any such thing is ever over. 

It occurred to me last night, watching our local news from Raleigh, that we are living in the new end of the new Reconstruction.  This is of course probably not news to many people, and I'm sure one could cast President Reagan's election as the doppelganger of the Presidential Election of 1876, as an historian's appointed "moment."  There's a reason that only history majors know anything much about the years from 1868 to, say, the advent of Grover Cleveland.  I mean besides the well-known Native American genocide occurring in the Plains Territories and States during that time--the depredations of General Custer, the Strategic Error of the Little Big Horn (a victory similar to our current "victory" in Iraq possibly).  But basically those years are a blank spot, aren't they?  Too complex, with too mysterious a message or moral.  You have the eloquent end of the Civil War, the Assassination of Lincoln, then pretty much silence beyond some regional myths about how the newly-freed black folk had a hard time dealing with responsibility.  Birth of a Nation they show in film history classes, but though it may still be a living myth to many, it has passed from our official American History.  Now there's mostly just nothing there.  A few old photos of Civil War Vets meeting at Gettysburg 50 years later.  "Slave quarters used as a rest room"--even the Federal Government unconsciously appeases the denialists. 

In the '60s I thought we got to the end of this period of history.  I was then of the age of most of the members of the 29th Division, who willingly died on the beach to bring peace to the world.  Kennedy was assassinated, and then they passed the Civil Rights Laws out of guilt and fear, and fifteen years after Brown V, the public schools of the South were more or less integrated.  In NC we had this Piersall Plan thing--contrived foot-dragging that stayed just one step from the barbed wire of closing public schools which our two mountains of conceit to the north and south of us had managed to cross.  Nonetheless, when I left Dear Old Needham Broughton in the spring of 1961, it was entirely white, and when I picketed the State Theatre in Raleigh in '63, with a group of black students from Shaw University, one of my favorite teachers crossed the picket line and gave me a "look," and walking back to Shaw, an old high school buddy of mine tried to run the group of us down as we crossed a gas station entrance.

Getting past all that stuff was a bitch.  Just when we got a bit of traction, Johnson tossed gasoline on Vietnam, and all the good will and hope evaporated with the bullets and blood on TV every night.  The tentative little baby steps white America was taking were not helped, either, by the eventual exasperation with nonviolence as a tactic on the part of black people--no matter that it was easy to understand, and not up to well meaning white boys to give sensible advice.   Then there was the "Southern Strategy."  Less than four years after the Civil Rights Laws were passed, and the same year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the country elected Richard Nixon.  Thus endeth the Second Reconstruction, not with a bang, but with a whimper.  One could even view the succession of winning Democratic Party candidates for President since Nixon as mostly efforts to appease the cultural objections to Brown V.  Two nice white southern boys, Jimmie Carter and then Bill Cllinton.  Carter remains reviled (and by many of those who at the same moment profess a public Christianity), Clinton marks the moment when the Impeachment Lever was seen as but another political tool to use, as needed, against a President of an opposing party assuming that party was the Democratic Party. 

I'm discussing trends.  There have indeed been significant strides made in the status of black Americans, compared to, oh, 1955.  But these days in Raleigh, the citizens have elected a school board which claims all the efforts to achieve diversity in the public schools are no longer "necessary."  This board--which is probably made up of a majority of folks who were not born either in Raleigh or the South--has been fed on WPTF hate radio for two generations.  They imagine that the Civil Rights Movement is as historic as the Civil War, and as conveniently over.  They're not going back to governmental segregation, just the de facto kind which comes with "neighborhood" schools.  It's all so very reasonable.  The fact that the heart of the Brown decision is an assertion that racial and cultural diversity are essential to an equal education--well, that just falls under the "activist judiciary" problem, and never mind that Earl Warren was a Republican Governor or than Ike was President.

So I'm thinking that we're now in the heart of a new post-Reconstruction era, that this is just what it felt like in 1880 or so.  We have a black President, and that creates an argument of,  "So what do you want, you have a Black President!"  Among those who moved the town down the road to the railroad station, I mean.  To an audience which finds Mr. Obama's election more deeply suspect than the "election" of George Bush in 2000, one must consider different explanations. "In his heart I believe he's a Muslim," one of 'em says to a reporter with a microphone. 

I don't know what Mr. Obama thinks about all this.  He's looking at an avalanche, maybe, in November.  I've noticed that Michelle has kinda vanished from public view entirely.  I'm wondering if, because she has a background more typical of American black people, she's a bit more acutely aware of the trend.  What are we going to get in '12 I wonder?  Hayley Barbour looks a lot like Taft.  He's saying the "Southern Strategy" was a method of assimilation.  Is it wise to hope for blatant absurdity in the form of a Presidential Candidate, on the grounds that "they" would never vote for--Her. 

Why is it we Americans persist in burying our unpleasant memories in the closest earthen dam?  Over and over again.   Ahh, them old Memphis Blues.  That's where they killed the Civil Rights Movement, on a second-floor motel balcony at 5 in the afternoon.  Another clear historical "moment."  April has always been the cruelist month I guess.  You have a holiday named for him, what more do you want?

I ran into a nice old southern lady from a very little southern town the other day.  She was driving a white Escalade, in a white dress, covering her white skin.  She told me she'd run over a pothole and busted her tire rim, and the dealer told her it was gonna cost her $400, so she went and bought a used one for $30.  I can't vouch for the truth of the figures, but that's what she said.  Then she said, "That Obama's gonna spend more money on fixing up the roads."  From how she said it, she wasn't telling me that the pothole problem was gonna be repaired, thank you Jesus.  Nope, she was saying that President Obama, like every other no good shiftless n****r, was gonna waste more of her hard earned money--the money that came every month in her social security check, and in the checks her late husband had created by sound investments in whatever it was he did for all of his adult life, so that in her '70s she could ride around the county in a white Escalade and an annoyed state of mind.

Dylan wrote that song several years before the murder of Martin Luther King.  It's no wonder he now says he doesn't know where those songs came from.

1 comment:

  1. Great post.

    (Came over here from the Doghouse, if you're wondering.)